Debate: Degrowth or Green Growth?

To save the planet, should we seek more economic growth, but just make sure that it respects planetary boundaries (“green growth”)? Or is there no alternative except to decrease total economic activity (“degrowth”)? About two weeks ago there was a fascinating debate on this critical and controversial topic now available on YouTube, which I recommend to everyone interested in what it’s actually going to take to deal with climate change. This is certainly an all-star cast—Jason Hickel, Sam Fankhauser, and Kate Raworth are all committed environmentalists and knowledgeable economists.

What do you think? Please feel free to make comments below. I have a few random thoughts but this isn’t a comprehensive analysis of the debate.

1. I was impressed by both speakers. My own position (as regular readers of this blog can probably figure out) is closer to that of Hickel: the economy, in sheer physical terms, must get smaller. Hickel is a very impressive speaker, and his introductory remarks were stirring and inspiring. However, Fankhauser was also articulate and made a number of excellent points, to which Hickel did not entirely respond. Fankhauser argued that we will need investment for the massive buildout of renewables which will be required, and that the politics of degrowth is absolutely disastrous—nobody wants the economy to contract, which we associate with recession, depression, or worse, so it’s going to be impossible to sell to the public.

2. There was zero discussion of plant-based diets, livestock, veganism, or agriculture. Fankhauser, though, gets some bonus points for mentioning land use: growing trees would naturally sequester huge amounts of carbon. However, he points out, we would have to insure that reforested areas remain forested; it doesn’t do any good to grow forests and then cut them down again. The follow-up question which no one asked would be: where can we find the land to grow these forests? (Answer: from lands now devoted to livestock.)

3. Also surprising was that neither speaker really questioned that modern renewables like solar and wind could replace fossil fuels, and that all we lack is the political will. The assumption they’re evidently making is that because the prices of renewables are coming down, that means renewables are already feasible and are becoming more so every day. This is highly questionable, as I’ve indicated elsewhere.

Thoughts on this debate, anyone?

8 Replies to “Debate: Degrowth or Green Growth?”

  1. It was a pleasure to listen to two experts share their perspectives on topics I know very little about. Mr. Fankhauer’s advocacy of Green Growth was positive and encouraging. Mr. Hickel’s position on Degrowth was deep, profound, and engaging. Green Growth may be faster to implement because it’s an easier “sell”, whereas Degrowth seems to require a complete overhaul of socially necessary (and less-necessary) services and forms of production. This is an opportunity for people in the developed world to ask ourselves just how much we are willing to sacrifice. If Mr. Fankhauer and Mr. Hickel are willing to do a follow-up debate, perhaps they can address such topics as veganism and livestock, as well as renewables such as solar and windpower.

  2. I have not had time to watch it. I can tell you that degrowth is a no sell at this point – unless it offers a system of guaranteed security for EVERYONE- healthcare (including dental), childcare, etc; also a job for everybody who wants one, and maybe supplemental cash too. Only then will they be willing to accept a simpler lifestyle; it’s a trade off. You have to bargain with people.

    I’m also not buying that we won’t see big techno unemployment even if they can’t replace us all with AI robots, computers and other high tech. We are long past the point of “Well, technology just makes more jobs.” That has not been true for a good long time now.

    1. That degrowth is a “no sell” at this point, is exactly the point that Sam Fankhauser made. Also, people are not going to pleased if you just offer them a half-baked version of “austerity” and call it “degrowth”; you have to have some basic sort of equality and stability in society first. In the meantime, climate worsens and oil production seems to be past its peak. We are still looking for the adults in the room.

  3. I know you hope to have a new book out soon. Unfortunately we are swimming against the tide of consumer omnivore culture:

    “Anyone who says that we will tell people to stop eating meat, or stop wanting to have a nice house, and we’ll just basically change human desires, I think that that’s too difficult,” Gates said. “You can make a case for it. But I don’t think it’s realistic for that to play an absolutely central role.”

    1. Mother Nature’s degrowth plan is economic and political collapse. As ecological realities become more evident, the degrowth audience will grow, and the discussion will shift from “do we want degrowth?” to “what kind of degrowth do we want?” What isn’t even thinkable today, will be inevitable tomorrow.

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